Monday, April 27, 2020

Maurice Pialat | Police

i’ve seen love from both sides now
by Douglas Messerli

Catherine Breillat (original concept, scenario, adaptation and dialogue, with Sylvie Pialat, Jacques Fieschi, and Maurice Pialat), Maurice Pialat (director) Police / 1985, USA 1986

French director Maurice Pialat’s 1986 film, Police, shows just how close those who protect us and those would rob or kill us truly are.
        Gerard Depardieu as police detective Mangin begins the film by interviewing a Tunisian drug smuggler, as the two seem more engaged in an endless dialogue than in any true discovery of what the drug runner and his Tunisian crime family has actually done.
        Indeed, as the movie progresses, and Mangin moves on to question more and more of the family, he becomes increasingly involved with the criminals, involving them in his attempts to help him accomplish his policing.
      Eventually he even falls in love with one of the crime family’s lovers, Noria (Sophie Marceau), herself suspected of drug-dealing, revealing that this hard-nosed cop, deep-down, is a total romantic—which today we might even describe as a serial sexual-abuser, at one point dragging Noria into the police station to have furtive sex with her among the file cabinets containing, presumably, the history of criminal histories.
       Later, Mangin meets with a young teenage prostitute (Sandrine Bonnair) from a frightful family, and with hardly innocent intentions plaintively chastises her for the fact that she decclares she has never been in love: ''You're 19 and you don't believe in love!''
       Another evening he even parties with the lawyer who has been able to convince a judge to free the drug dealer.

       Yet Pialat presents these cross-over relationships with the “good” and the “bad” with a surprising complacency, never truly judging his characters. The director almost seems to indicate that this is just the way things are.
       When you daily deal with criminals some of their behavior is bound to rub off; and perhaps the criminals know more about the justice system than we ever might. In short, each live off of one another, or, at least, need each other in order to survive.
       Without deceit a police detective would no longer have a job; and without perceiving how deceit functions those who rush out to destroy our lives would not ever know how to proceed.
       In a sense, this film reminds me a little of Corneliu Porumboiu’s Politsit, adj. (Police, adjective) from 2009, about a different kind of policeman who was forced by the very bureaucracy within which he worked to destroy a young boy’s life simply for smoking a little bit of pot.
       Yet in this film the crimes are much more heinous and terrifying. The Tunisian drug family members are obviously involved in far more serious drugs. And the police detective, although he does appear to do his job, also ambiguously moves in and out of moral grounds.
       One might even argue that Mangin, himself, is “hooked,” not on drugs, but on love, as Pialat makes it clear that this widower is so very lonely that he simply cannot help himself from falling in love with his enemies. As much as he may attempt to bring them into his community in order to help, he also contaminates his activities.

      Obviously, we have all long known that there is often a thin line between those who protect us and those who prey on us. Soldiers become killers; policeman are often tempted to take advantage of their powers. Racism, murder, and mayhem accompany even the best police departments all over the world.
       Pialat’s film simply presents this as a fact, as we come to sympathize, as in Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, with both sides of the picture. Police is not so very much about those brave men in uniform who come to our side in times of danger, but about the entire activity of “policing” and what that means in real life. It’s not a sanitary activity. All men and women are carriers, of sorts, of viruses that infect our entire societies.
     As US Westerns have long shown us, small-town sheriffs often shoot others for absolutely no reason; yodeling cowboys killed innocent men and women. Pialat’s excellent film might be described as a “thriller” without any thrill.

Los Angeles, April 27, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2020).

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Rachel Mason | Circus of Books

where the sun don’t shine
by Douglas Messerli

Rachel Mason Circus of Books / 2020

When we first moved to Los Angeles, Howard and I, independently, discovered the gay bookstore, Circus of Books, which we visited separately several times. Even married gay men still enjoy gay porn, just like the heterosexual men who subscribed to Playboy and Larry Flynt’s publications.
     The store in West Hollywood which Howard and I visited (there was another store in Silverlake) had nearly every popular gay magazine, along with noted photography books by artists of gay men, as well as other interesting works on mostly spiritual issues in the large open and airy first room; and in another “back” room, for which you needed to provide an age identification, had hundreds of current gay porno tapes—in those days mostly on VHS—for sale.
     One could also perceive that, in some cases, this also served as a kind of cruising spot, although I never knew, thank heaven, that there was also an attic retreat.
     Of course, as we aged, and gay porn was available on the internet, we stopped visiting that store, and recently, both of its venues closed.
     It was with some degree of startlement, accordingly, that the recent Netflix film, Circus of Books, revealed that these meccas for gay people and dens of sin for the more conservative of our city’s citizens were owned and actively run by a gentle, faithfully religious Jewish couple, Barry and Karen Mason.
      Barry, the less religious of the two, is a friendly and mild-tempered man, who seems more likely to have been able to serve and tolerate his clientele. After all, he worked with Hollywood directors in his optical printing work he created for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek, and had used his technological abilities to create a protection from air in the dialysis system to help his father during a kidney transplant.
      Barry admits that as AIDS grew, he regularly visited hospitals were dying men had been left to die without any support from their families.
      In his daughter Rachel’s documentary, he comes off as so genial that you simply, in a day before COVID-19, might wish to simply hug him for helping to create a place in which gay men might wish to congregate without embarrassment—although I do recall Howard’s admonishment to be careful when I visited the store, since there was an important art gallery across the street. Yet there was something comforting about the place. Here was a store devoted to an audience that many businesses, except gay bars, had long shunned. And as the AIDS epidemic spread, Circus of Books, appeared more and more like a kind of home one could return to without feeling shamed.
      Yet, it was Karen, the more religious of the two, who truly ran the business, buying up perhaps the largest collection of gay porno, dildos, and other devices that any other store in the US. Why she did this, despite her intense family life and commitment to traditional Judaism remains a bit inexplicable in Rachel’s film. How could this slightly straight-laced mother order up tapes such as “Cum on Guys,” “Where the Shine Don’t Shine,” and “The Taste of Ass”? Howard bought these, not I.
      But there are clues. After all, as film critic Matt Fagerholm reminds us:

Easily the most widely known of Rachel’s interview subjects is Larry Flynt, whose need for secondary distributors of his controversial Blueboy magazine caused him to place an ad in the Los Angeles Times, which was answered by Barry and Karen. Having been forced to sell the rights to Barry’s aforementioned invention due to the outrageous cost of insurance, they were looking for a quick way to earn money, and their remarkable business sense led them to take over West Hollywood’s Book Circus, flipping the title and turning the property—along with their second location in Silverlake—into an essential sanctuary for gay men. Without modern online communal spaces such as that liberate repressed souls by normalizing their sexuality, Circus of Books was one of the sole places where the stigma routinely attributed to homosexual orientations was obliterated.
     Karen had also marched with Martin Luther King and worked as a journalist covering raids by the police of homosexual bars.
     Yet, her children were told, when others asked what their parents did, to simply say they owned a bookstore. And when they were finally allowed to visit their parents at their place of employment, they were warned to keep their eyes facing to the floor.
      When her son Josh flew home from college to tell his mother and father that he was gay, he admits that he had bought a round-trip ticket just in case he might immediately been sent “packing.”
      It clearly was not easy for Karen to accept the facts, giving that her religious views were in deep conflict with her son’s recognition of his sexuality. Clearly, having witnessed directly the deaths of so many of her customers she was terrified about his survival. Unfortunately, the director does not completely explain why her mother was far more accepting of her own identity with the LGBTQ community.
      Perhaps some things are simply too private.
   Yet this is a brave movie, portraying a world which I was part of, but knew so little about. Sometimes the people you might least suspect to be the supporters of your lifestyle are the most stolid as they helped in the struggle.

Los Angeles, April 25, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2020).

Monday, April 20, 2020

Maurice Pialat | La gueule ouverte (The Mouth Agape)

destined to be forgotten

Maurice Pialat (writer and director) La gueule ouverte (The Mouth Agape) / 1974

French director Maurice Pialat’s 1974 film, The Mouth Agape is an unforgiving movie about a dying woman’s death.
     Those around her, a son Philippe (Philippe Léotard), his wife Nathalie (Nathalie Baye), and her long-absent husband Roger (Hubert Deschamps) all gather around her, lying, as they have all done throughout her life, that she will be just fine—despite the doctor’s report that she is near death.
      All of them have cheated on their lovers, but are now forced to come together, however briefly, to care for the woman who has most clearly loved them.
      It is a sad affair, as they attempt to cook for her and themselves, keep up a sloppy household, while still attempting their ever-flirtatious and sexually ambiguous activities, despite their seeming attempts to hold on to the figure who has most nourished them throughout their lives.
      There is nothing sentimental here: they do not abandon their horrific pasts as they still are determined to nurse the dying force of their own existence.
       This is a film about skirting away and shrinking from the truth. The woman who is dying knows, suddenly what is happening, and has known the other terrible happenings all of her life.
        Even in her hospital suffering, she is totally aware of the abandonment that these now so-very-present males and daughter-in-law have offered her. Even if they are now there, pretending to care and love her, she knows, as they recognize, they have never been truly able to love and support her. She has nothing left but a breathing tube and an empty life, and a strong-willed ability to accept the affairs that her husband has enabled himself with to leave her behind, as well as her own son’s inability to return her motherly love.

    We don’t truly understand her family’s past behaviors, but Pialat gives us enough subliminal clues that we can recognize that she has suffered an entire lifetime of just such an abandonment that even as they attempt to assure her the she will survive, she knows she can no longer live on, particularly with her lying and cheating husband and sons. Her “mouth agape,” finally becomes a symbol of existential living, a representation of the terror she has had to suffer through most of her life.
     A bit like Michael Haneke’s Amour, without the deep love between the husband and wife, Pialat’s film somewhat brutally dissects her family’s inability to truly love the person who has, in fact, brought them into existence. Yes, these failed men of the film do still care for her, but have also totally rejected her love, or at the very least have been unable to remain committed to its existence.
    They come together so late in her life that it truly no longer has much meaning, a bit like guilty boys or mafioso figures camping out for the besieged world they are now about to face.
     When she dies, they attend the funeral with as little guilt as they can, rushing off to continue their sexual abnormalities. Pialat gives them no permission as they run off to continue their misogynistic behavior. He only makes it apparent that they are not to be forgiven for the pacts they have forged with a world outside of family love.
      This is a film about love’s failure, not its ability to sustain or provide a healthy continuance. The long-suffering wife who Monique Mélinand beautifully portrays is simply destined to be forgotten.

Los Angeles, April 20, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2020).

Friday, April 17, 2020

Fernando Arrabal | L'arbre de Guernica (The Guernica Tree)

images of terror
by Douglas Messerli

Fernando Arrabal and Francesco Cinieri (writers), Fernando Arrabal (director) L'arbre de Guernica (The Guernica Tree) / 1975, USA 1976

As Roger Ebert pointed out in his 1976 review, Fernando Arrabal’s 1975 movie L’arbre de Guernica was the first film about the Franco era actually made in Spain. And even then, this powerful study about the early days of the Spanish Civil War is presented more as a De Sadeian fantasia than a realist picture of the terrible takeover of Spain which brough that country into horrific decades of fascist rule—far longer than its neighbors Italy and Germany.
      In Arrabal’s version, we see the terrible events of Franco’s takeover from various viewpoints: including that of the wealthy Count Cerralbo (Bento Urago), whose family for generations has demeaned, starved, and punished the poor citizens of the small village of Villa Ramiro and whose thuggish three nephews continue the abuse; his only son, Goya (Ron Faber) whose major actions have been artistic interventions before he joins the underground; the radical woman leader Vandale (Mariangela Melato) based on the real-life Civil War hero La Pasionaria; the pacifist local school teacher, who passionately believes in freedom, but is hesitant about the local’s abilities to control their violence; and the wild and raucous peasants who dance out their long frustrations and anger in various de Sade-like maneuvers.
      Hardly any of these figures is free of blame, although it is clear that Vandale and Goya, who finally meet up in Guernica, under the Guernica Tree, a symbol of the area’s commitment to independence and freedom, are the film’s heroes. That is, of course, the very moment when Franco’s forces chose to bomb and kill the attendees, and as with Pablo Picasso’s famed painting, Arrabal’s cinematic presentation reveals all the horror of those events.
      Much of this director’s presentation of “reality” however, are revealed in a manner that one might describe as a kind of terrifying mix of Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini (particularly Pasolini’s Saló). The Count’s nephews attempt to rape Vandale as she rides into the village on a donkey; she escapes by throwing a handful of vipers at them.
     Small boys dance naked, girls wave flags and sing on their way to mass. A dwarf has sex with a beautiful woman, while around him others of his kind voyeuristically look on.
     The villagers’ celebration of Guernica day is more like a mad Mardi Gras than a recognition of what Guernica and its tree truly represents. The elderly local woman see Vandale as a witch. The peasants’ passion for freedom results in the invasion of the Count’s estate, his wife and servants led off to death. The Count escapes only through the good graces of the school-teacher who hides him simply because “it is the right thing to do,” refusing to take the money and jewels the Count offers him.
      The villagers overtake the church, desecrating most of its holy symbols, including the cross with Jesus upon it, as they shoot it apart with guns.
       But even more horrifying are the images of their deaths after the Falange, aided by Hitler and Mussolini, take over the small village which Arrabal has created to represent all Spanish villages.
After a blessing by church leaders, which includes a full outright tongue-kissing episode between the presiding priest and his male assistant, the rebels are painfully punished with the dismembering of their testicles, numerous absurdist shootings, and, eventually, by the dwarfs being tied to small carts who, one by one, a well-dressed matador impales while an aristocratic audience looks on with applause.
       Let us just say that, as beautiful at times his images are, Arrabal’s film is not an easy one to witness. But then neither was the Spanish Civil War!
       Beneath the lovely color images, the director is comprehensibly angry, and as in Pasolini’s Saló, the degree of the torture of human beings is commensurate to the passing of time.
       No solution in this film seems totally possible. The aristocracy and church members terrorize the villagers, the villagers are stupidly brutal, the fascists are murderers. Even the pacifist teacher is trapped into non-action.
       Arrabal’s own father was imprisoned during the Second Spanish War, attempted suicide, and escaped from a hospital in his pajamas, never to have been seen again. If that doesn’t make one a Surrealist, then you’re simply unable to comprehend life.

Los Angeles, April 17, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2020).

Monday, April 6, 2020

Jacques Tati | Parade

what is a circus?

Jacques Tati (writer and director) Parade / 1974

I generally do not like circuses. Although I do fondly remember when my father took me, and I think my younger brother David, to the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey circus when he traveled into Cedar Rapids, by train I believe, to perform at the venue titled Hawkeye Downs, just outside of the city. I recall that my father, not very attuned to entertainment—he primarily loves sports and Westerns—took us quite early in the morning to see the set-up of the great circus venue.
     There we took in a side-show—although I think my father refused to allow us to see some of the freakish events—and then we basked in the major, three-ring circus of tigers, elephants, jugglers, dancing women, and the wonderful clown of the day, Emmett Kelly. I had never before experienced by father so open to the simple celebrations of pleasure. I’ll never forget that very long day—something a bit like Cecille DeMille’s memorable The Greatest Show on Earth—without, fortunately the great train crash. But everything else the movie portrays was there: trapeze acts, lumbering elephants, horses, lions, tigers, clowns, and an eager audience for the entire spectacle of it. I love my father for having taken us to see it.
      Yet there was something, even as a child, I hated about it all. The whips used to keep the beasts at bay, the dangerous vertiginous heights that the trapeze artists took to simply dazzle us, the silly cars stuffed with too many clownish figures. I have always felt that, despite the spectacular events, there was something impossibly dangerous about living at the edge of circus life. The bearded lady, the dwarves, the two-headed monsters, were not something I really wanted to witness. As much as I love theater, even in my childhood, this was not my true idea of entertainment. James Stewart was locked into his role as a clown because of his past. And all that fake laughter, I couldn’t bear.
      How different is Tati’s European take of the same kind of event. Here the male audience of 1975 in Sweden mostly leave behind their motorcycle head gear instead of hats as they pour into a large tennis-venue to see Tati’s version of a circus.

     Yes, there are jugglers, who in this case mostly juggle artist’s paint brushes. There are animals: a seemingly nasty mule and prancing horses. But the major form in this show is pantomime, performed mostly through the master of ceremonies hero, Tati himself, as he imitates the playing soccer, tennis, and other sports. Serious musicians are interrupted by tumblers. Drummers intrude upon otherwise well-intentioned actors. This is the world of the Marx Brothers.
      Of course, Tati himself is a kind of clown, but here the clowns are also the artists, who throughout the production keep painting the sets on stage, representing the images—sometimes crudely clown-like (a bit like the art of Red Skelton) with more interesting abstract productions. The artists who remain on stage for most of the production, represent a performance in creation. They are as important, in this production, as the major circus artists, and they engage the audience in their antics, sometimes attempting to find colors: a blue, a purple, a red to create their vital art.
     In fact, the audience is central here, not just a huge aggregate sitting far away from the three-ring circus. People come and go, they sing along with the songs presented by the performers, they actively accept the balloons with which they are presented, some of which are used to create music.
A young girl keeps her eyes poised on a childish and sometimes churlish young boy behind her. Even if I might never have been able to participate with that audience, some of whom dare to take on the stubborn mule—the young boy finally able to tame it through an offering of food and a truly lighter settling across his back—there is something just so enjoyable about this stubborn Swedish folk that you have to love their pleasure in the event.
      Most critics have argued that this is not Tati’s greatest achievement, and I’ll agree. But Parade is a kind of statement, of sorts, of what performance can truly mean. I don’t think my father would have enjoyed this more vaudevillian version of the great spectacle he (and perhaps even I) might have sought.
      But Tati’s world is not so much about the spectacle but about the art itself—in every sense of that word—the sets, the costumes, the subtle ability to entertain the audience. The parade, in this case, is not at all like the performers in Show Boat or Jumbo. It’s a passage of time and pleasure, an intersection between the audience and the performers on stage.
      The backstage workers, the painters, the almost accidental performers, are just as important in this instance as the “master of ceremonies.” Tati, although often as brilliant as ever, lets his subordinates control the stage. And his audience is as important, in this film, as what he’s representing. In this brilliant piece of cinema, no one seems left out.

Los Angeles, April 6, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2020).

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Éric Rohmer | La Boulangère de Monceau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau)

a moral dilemma
by Douglas Messerli

Éric Rohmer (writer and director) La Boulangère de Monceau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau) / 1963

The first of Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, The Bakery Girl of Monceau is a work which simply recounts the story of a suddenly love-stricken young man (Barbet Schoeder) who falls in love with a slightly mysterious woman (Michèle Girardon), an assistant gallery employee, whom he discovers on the street. He vaguely knows where she might live and, basically, stalks her in an attempt to get to know who she is. If there is anything “moral,” meaning a cultural norm, about this tale, it is that he, a kind of true innocent, which even his friend guiding him through the process insists he is, the central figure is challenged to encounter the beautiful woman with whom he has suddenly fallen in love.  

    She, the woman he is seeking, is not entirely innocent. She has noticed his subtle eye-contact, and returns the view, just as discretely, until the two accidentally bump to one another, perhaps not unintentionally. In Rohmer’s handling of the situation, we can never be certain whether these strangers have or have not been waiting for that magic encounter, like pre-Pokémon figures, simply waiting to crash into one another.
     But like today’s distancing beings, the woman suddenly disappears, and her desperate young would-be lover, a bit desolate, endlessly checks out the neighborhood for the object of his desire.
     This search is at heart of Rohmer’s tale, as the “hero” also daily visits a patisserie, buying a cookie from the serving girl (Claudine Soubrier) during which she gradually falls in love with him as well.
      So are we presented with a kind of love triangle that more truly represents the “moral dilemma” than the director suggests. Will our weak hero fall in love with the loving shop girl or the woman of his dreams, although the latter has disappeared into the dark magic of the Paris streets?
      This is, after all, a stalking movie, and as the two leads eventually do reconnoiter, she having been suffering a foot injury which has kept her inside for so many of our cookie-munching hero’s days, we quickly realize that that the young law-clerk will surely abandon his equally secret love around the corner.
      The issue here is not a socially “moral” issue, but a very private one, the kind that you have to perceive all by yourself. He has betrayed an innocent simply by seeking another sort of love.

      When I was a very young man, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, I met a young woman, living on a farm, who one day invited me to her home where we had a very pleasant afternoon—believe or not—riding horses. I never might have imagined that I might be able to carelessly ride a horse; but I was a natural, and I am sure, right there-and-then, my innocent farm-girl friend fell in love with me.
      A few years later, after I moved away to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Holly showed up, probably in the same year this movie was made, desperately attempting to regain the experience of that one day. I took her out for lunch but didn’t have the guts to tell her I was gay.
      I too had other loves, just as in Rohmer’s movie. It was a true moral dilemma.
      Rohmer himself writes about his moral concept:

My intention was not to film raw events, but the narrative that someone makes of them. The story, the choice of facts, their organization... not the treatment that I could have made them submit to. One of the reasons that these Tales are called "Moral" is that physical actions are almost completely absent: everything happens in the head of the narrator.

    Yes, the subtle transformation of one woman to another is not a true tragedy in Rohmer’ film, but on an individual level I am certain it means everything.

Los Angeles, April 4, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2020).